Why, what and how: modernising Defra

3 February 2016
Liz Truss, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told an audience at the Institute for Government about her plans to reform her department. Gavin Freeguard reports.

People beyond ‘the world of Whitehall-watching’ should care about reform in government, Liz Truss told an audience at a recent Institute for Government event, because ‘the how’ is inextricably linked to the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ – the mission a country has.

For Liz Truss, the Government’s mission is ‘to build Britain’s economy and society in this turnaround decade’ and improve productivity. The mission of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to be at the forefront of ‘the next phase of change’ in how government works. Truss’s speech was structured around four aims – for the department to be more integrated, more open, more modern and more local.

We’ve taken five themes of the speech to see what those aims might mean in practice.

Liz Truss at IfG

Data

One of the most prominent signals of Defra’s modernisation has been the promise to open up 8,000 datasets. The Secretary of State confirmed this was on track for June, and this would represent a third of all government open data. Opening up the data has already led to innovation – Truss used the example of LIDAR data (a 3D map of the country) and its adoption by skyscraper architects, Minecraft developers and archaeologists alike. (LIDAR is one of Defra’s most popular datasets, as we will explore in a separate post.) The department hopes that openness will lead to greater engagement, and give the public better information and the tools to make decisions locally.

As well as opening up the data for others to use, the department will itself make better use of its data. A new Environment Analysis Unit aims to bring together data from across the wider Defra group ‘meaning that flood alleviation, flora and fauna, farming, water soil and air will be considered together; not as isolated issues’. This trend for departments to ‘dogfood’ (use their own data) more intelligently – which the Institute for Government’s Whitehall Monitor 2015 called for more of ­– is clearly welcome.

Digital

‘Digital’ was one of the watchwords of the last parliament, and is about more than simply technology – it is about changes in social, political and organisational culture it enables. Truss’s experience in the private sector helped teach her this:

‘The arrival of the internet did not just mean automating what we already did. It meant companies making huge efficiency savings and the whole culture of organisations changing. Layers of management were stripped out and we had to be more nimble and responsive.’

For public services, this means that:

‘people today expect responsiveness and seamlessness, they want services shaped around their needs not around organisational convenience. The days of traditional government departments saying “take it or leave it” are over’.

Much of the work of the Government Digital Service has been focused around the needs of users of public services; for Defra, it should be building work around ‘the people who deal with us and the landscapes we are trying to enhance, not our organogram’.

Digital working also include sharing expertise across government and bringing together common functions (Truss mentioned sharing IT, HR and communications across the wider Defra group) – or shared platforms – in order to release resources for the frontline. It also means working in a more open, iterative way. Truss said she was:

‘pushing Defra to welcome good ideas wherever they come from, creating a flourishing greenhouse of creativity. This means consulting as widely as possible and “showing our workings” in public.’

Defra would use the Dialogue platform for the public to have their say on the environment framework, while one of the reasons for Defra publishing 8,000 datasets was to see which ones people used, and iterate from there.

Not all things digital have necessarily gone to plan for Defra so far – for example, the digital problems surrounding the Rural Payments Agency, which have attracted the attention of the National Audit Office and others. Truss pointed to successes – using data and the Environment Agency website during recent floods, for example – and said that 70% of farm payments were ‘out the door’ as of last week.

Skills

Becoming more of a digital, data-driven department has consequences for the skills a department needs: having people with digital and data skills was now ‘mission critical’ for Defra.

Truss related a story from her time as a junior minister at the Department for Education, when she attended a Cabinet Committee meeting. There were name plates for participants – one of them read simply ‘Grade 7, Department of [something]’. From her experience of the private sector, she understood that hierarchies were important in large organisations, but this tendency was more pronounced in Whitehall, with people being known by their grades. Whitehall, she said, should be moving into an era where it recognised people for particular skills and helping those specific talents to rise, rather than hoping a generic person with a particular grade would fit the bill.

Building an EMO

One way of bringing in particular skills was via an EMO. As Truss pointed out, this is not ‘a goth punk movement’ but an Extended Ministerial Office, allowing the department to bring in outside experts. The Institute has previously supported the idea of EMOs as long as there is greater transparency around appointments to them, and Truss named all of the people working in hers: she likened its staff to ‘bicarbonate of soda’, helping to fizz and bubble up great ideas embedded in the department and bring them to the surface.

While special advisers worked mainly on the political side, those in the EMO could bring other expertise – in a particular subject area, a particular type of analysis or driving a particular programme of reform – and bring fresh impetus to a department comfortable with discussing and debating ideas.

Arm’s-length bodies

One of the themes woven throughout the event was the structure of the department and its arm’s-length bodies. Truss gave a brief history of government reform – for example, the 1968 Fulton report called for greater separation of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ of government, but the creation of agencies under Next Steps in the 1980s ‘brought duplication, friction and extra costs’. Government had gone with the ‘fashion’ too much in the past, shifting from arm’s-length to in-house rather than getting the best of both worlds; and in reality, the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of government can be difficult to disentangle.

A more sensible approach would maintain independence where needed – such as where bodies performed regulatory functions – but allow operational functions to be shared. Defra still has 34 arm’s-length bodies, which can give the department a view of what is happening on the ground and perform some separate functions. But Truss’s vision of greater integration and structuring the Defra group’s work around people and landscape means that:

‘For the first time, we will have a plan and budget for each area rather than 34 organisations operating with different plans.’

Lis Truss plans to align the 25-year plan for the environment, plans for food and farming, the Single Departmental Plan (now not expected until March) and the Budget, to create a smarter, more responsive department. That will take time – but such a reimagining of a Whitehall department may be necessary in an era where, as Truss said, ‘change is the constant’.

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